Summary: Maestro Mouse is your guide through this musical romp starring the animal kingdom. Each page includes a poem or two about the featured animal, concluding with a sign held by Maestro Mouse offering a lesson that can be derived from the poem. Sharp-eyed readers will also spot letters in each picture that, when put together, spell out a word. The animals and words come together in the final gatefold page that shows all the animals playing music in an orchestra. Includes an author’s note from Dan Brown (yes, that Dan Brown, author of The Da Vinci Code and many other books for adults) and endpapers showing and identifying the different musical instruments. Also includes an app that can be downloaded to listen to musical accompaniment throughout the story. 44 pages; ages 4-9.
Pros: A fun introduction to both animals and musical instruments. I did not download the app, but it sounds like an enjoyable way to experience the music introduced in the book. The hidden letters and coded words will please those who like puzzles.
Cons: Poems, a series of (didactic) lessons, musical instruments, hidden letters, word scrambles, and an app that plays music…felt like a bit too much to unpack for one picture book.
Summary: Poet Irene Latham starts with a poem about a bird’s nest divided into four three-verse sections, one for each season. She then uses the words from this poem to create new short poems. The titles use different words, but all the words for each poem come from the original work; thus, the new poems are “nestlings” from the original “Nest”. The nestlings are divided into seven sections about time (two sections), colors, emotions, wordplay, and places. Most poems are 3-5 lines long with just a word or two in each line. Includes an introduction, tips on how to choose a nest poem and create nestlings of your own, and an index of poem titles. 112 pages; grades 2-5.
Pros: I love this concept, a bit of a twist on found poetry, and would enjoy trying it with a group of kids. The poems are brief, but each one really speaks: “First Poem-Draft: ink squeaks/with hope”. “Playing the Trumpet: glittery trill/golden thrum–/splashsong!” Simple enough to be a good introduction to poetry in early grades, yet expressive enough to use with older kids, and plenty here to encourage active poetry writing.
Cons: I loved the illustrations, and wouldn’t have minded seeing one on every page.
Summary: Emily Dickinson’s life story is told from beginning to end, with her poetry woven into almost every page. Her internal life is explored, how she loved books and sought answers when confronted with deaths of people near her. As she grew older, she withdrew more, focusing on her writing and only interacting with a few people who were close to her. Following her death in 1886, her sister Vinnie found hundreds of poems tucked away around her house, and the world began to discover the poet Emily Dickinson. Includes additional information about Emily’s poetry; how to discover the world of poetry; a few books by and about Emily; and notes from the author and illustrator. 52 pages; grades 2-5.
Pros: This gorgeously illustrated biography is an excellent introduction to the poetry of Emily Dickinson, and gives readers some glimpses into Dickinson’s life and why she chose to live the way she did. The back matter provides additional inspiration for aspiring poets.
Cons: As someone who has wished for a good elementary biography of Emily Dickinson (she’s a hot topic for third graders when they get to their unit on famous Massachusetts people), I was disappointed that this book didn’t include much of the factual biographical information (when she was born, where she lived, etc.) that kids are seeking for reports. A timeline would have been helpful and not taken away from the lyrical nature of the writing.
Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Summary: The three voices that “tell it” belong to Loretta Little, a sharecropper’s daughter growing up in Mississippi from 1927 to 1930; Loretta’s younger brother Roly, who narrates from 1942 to 1950; and Roly’s daughter, Aggie B., whose years span 1962 to 1968. Inspired by the oral tradition, their narratives of hardship, poverty, love, and fights for civil rights are told in their own voices, supplemented by poems and illustrations. Includes an author’s note; an illustrator’s note; additional information on the dramatic form; information on sharecroppers; thumbnail portraits and descriptions of real-life people who appear in the Littles’ stories; and a list of resources for further reading and sharing. 224 pages; grades 5-8.
Pros: The Pinkneys have produced another work of art that is sure to get some attention at awards time. The monologues are designed for reading aloud, and could be performed all together, or as individual pieces. The poems and illustrations tie all three narratives together beautifully.
Cons: I would have liked the information on the dramatic form at the beginning of the book. I read this as one would a regular novel, and found it a bit of a slog. It’s much more lively when considering it as a performance piece.
Summary: Fourteen poems by different writers and using different poetic forms tell the stories of ordinary children and teens who have made a difference in their communities. Through writing, music, fundraising, speaking, and more these kids have tackled issues from climate change to diseases to civil rights. Each poem includes a portrait and a short paragraph about the subject. The kids’ stories are bookended by two poems called “Amplify” and “Make Some Noise” about the importance of standing up and speaking out. Includes definitions of the different poetry forms and photos with additional information about all the poets. 40 pages; grades 2-5.
Pros: It would be hard not to be inspired by the kids in this book, and their stories are told in an accessible way, through poetry, prose, and art. Teachers and students will find this book useful for getting ideas for making a difference as well as learning different forms of poetry.
Cons: The taped-down library jacket flaps covered up some of the kids’ inspiring quotes on the endpapers.
Published by Jimmy Patterson Books (Little, Brown)
Summary: Round One: Cassius Clay’s friend Lucky and the rest of Cassius’s friends and family are awaiting the results of the 1958 Golden Gloves championship. 16-year-old Cassius is in Chicago, 300 miles from his home in Louisville, KY. The phone rings, and the story shifts to Cassius’s voice, told in verse. Clay didn’t win that championship, but he relates how he got there: the friends and relatives who influenced him, the events that led him to boxing, the unflagging discipline and confidence that helped him in his training. By the time we get to Round Nine, Cassius is ready to return to the Golden Gloves competition and become a champion. Lucky introduces each round, then finishes with a Final Round, in which he tells what happened to Cassius Clay, later Muhammad Ali, during the rest of his career. 320 pages; grades 4-7.
Pros: Apparently, Kwame Alexander has been a Muhammad Ali fan since he read Ali’s autobiography as a kid, and he uses his considerable poetic talents to bring the boxer life. I wasn’t sure I liked Lucky’s prose sections at first, but they did flesh out the story, setting up the action for the poetry parts. This is sure to be an enormously popular choice for kids.
Cons: I’m curious about the collaboration James Patterson, who seems more like a brand than an actual author these days. I would have preferred this to be the sole work of Kwame Alexander, whom I’m sure could have pulled it off without any help.
Published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Summary: Nora and her dad are going for a hike on her birthday. It’s the first time they’ve gone hiking since her mother was killed by a gunman exactly a year ago when the family was celebrating Nora’s birthday at a restaurant. Her father was also injured, but the greater trauma to both of them was psychological. Nora’s ready to return to school, but her dad’s afraid to let her out of his sight. The two of them argue about it as they start their hike; seconds later, there’s a rumbling sound, and a flash flood sweeps into the canyon, washing her father away. Nora’s left on her own to survive two nights in the desert, battling snakes, scorpions, heat, thirst, and her own demons. Determined to find and rescue her dad, Nora draws on inner resources and discovers she is stronger than she’s believed for the past year. 320 pages; grades 4-7.
Pros: Warning: once you pick up this novel in verse, it’s hard to put down. It’s equal parts survival tale and a story of healing from a horrific trauma, told in flashbacks as Nora grapples with nightmares and other reminders of her mother’s murder. Although it may not sound so from this description, this is a book appropriate for upper elementary kids, who will undoubtedly find it as difficult to put down as I did.
Cons: If you’re seeking a little light reading, you should probably look elsewhere.
Summary: When Henry arrives at Riverview in September of 1939, he is six years old, and has been deaf from an illness since the age of 3. His parents have been advised to institutionalize him, and after he failed the admissions test for the state school for the deaf (he refused to blow out candles when an administrator tried to communicate that instruction to him), he’s been placed at the Riverview Home for the Feebleminded. Unable to communicate or to understand what is happening to him, Henry tries to make friends and survive his days there, witnessing the abuse that other boys suffer for minor infractions. His family tries to visit him once a year, but is not always able to afford the bus fare. After World War II starts, a conscientious objector named Victor is assigned to Riverview, and befriends Henry. Victor reaches out to Henry’s family, and is instrumental in convincing them that their son belongs at home. Henry’s older sister learns about sign language, and after five years at Riverview, Henry is finally able to come home again and begin to learn to read, write, and speak. Includes notes on the poetic forms used in this novel in verse; a lengthy author’s note about the boy in her husband’s family who inspired this story, as well as poems written by another family member about this boy. 272 pages; grades 4-7.
Pros: Both Henry’s story and Victor’s were fascinating, and the intersection of their lives was a great relief after the first part of the story at Riverview. Helen Frost’s poetry brings the story to life, and the back matter makes it even more poignant.
Cons: I would have been interested in learning more about how Victor became a conscientious objector. It sounded pretty simple from the story, but as a Quaker, I know this is not always an easy process.
Summary: These thirty brief poems celebrate all different things you might see in the air: the sun, butterflies, leaves, birds, and more. Each poem is just four lines: “Sunflower, standing/taller than me,/what do you see/ that I can’t see?” and is accompanied by an illustration. Most pages contain two related poems (sunflowers and honeybees) that can be shown in the same picture. 40 pages; ages 3-8.
Pros: A good first poetry book, with short rhyming poems that describe everyday topics. The illustrations show a diverse group of kids enjoying the outdoors.
Cons: This felt like a celebration of nature, yet a few of the subjects (kites, balloons, helicopters, paragliding, and fireworks) were about human-made objects.
Published by Nancy Paulsen Books (Released September 1)
Summary: ZJ can remember “before the ever after” when his NFL star dad was a football star, and he and his parents lived a happy life in suburban Maplewood. But his father has started having severe headaches, memory lapses, and irrational behavior that have put an end to his football career. Doctors are baffled by his case, and by similar cases of some of his NFL teammates. 12-year-old ZJ finds support from his mom and three close friends, as he tries to enjoy his dad’s more lucid moments, and worries when things start to fall apart. A crisis near the end of the story results in Dad being admitted to the hospital, with the hope that he’ll get the care he needs, but nothing guaranteed. 176 pages; grades 4-8.
Pros: This novel in verse by superstar Jacqueline Woodson will appeal to fans of Kwame Alexander and K. A. Holt. Set in the early 2000’s when doctors were just beginning to understand the effects of multiple concussions for NFL players, there’s no happy ending, but ZJ’s voice hits just the right note between hope and despair. An awards contender, for sure.
Cons: It seemed surprising that none of the four 12-year-old boys in the story had any crushes or mention of romance.